Interviewed by Marc Weber on 2020-12-10 in Manchester, MA X9392.2021
© Computer History Museum
Ray Ozzie was inspired by online collaboration in college, on the mainframe-based PLATO system. The arc of his career has been adapting collaborative features to successive platforms: Personal computers, the Internet, the cloud, mobile, and now the internet of things.
PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) was a leading-edge computing environment for education created at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1960. By the early 1970s it was also evolving into perhaps the most vibrant early online community with many visionary capabilities. These included real-time chat, multi-player games, and collaborative documents, as well as email and discussion groups via a program called PLATO Notes. This early experience would shape Ozzie’s career. His belief in providing access to everyone was solidified by his work with a quadriplegic programmer in college who used a mouthstick to type.
Graduating in 1979, Ozzie began working at minicomputer maker Data General. But he and college buddies Tim Halvorsen and Len Kawell desperately missed PLATO, and tried to adapt its communal features to various minicomputer platforms despite limited interest from their employers.
Personal computers were beginning to take off, and Ray wondered whether they might be the right platform to spread collaborative features. He moved over to Software Arts, where he worked for cofounders Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston on VisiCalc, the legendary persoal computer spreadsheet package. But Bricklin and Frankston were too busy with current products to back his new venture.
So Ray struck a deal with Lotus cofounder Mitch Kapor: Ray would create Symphony, a suite of applications extending the firm’s flagship Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. Then Lotus would back his own company to build his dream—collaborative software running on networked PCs.
Ray’s team delivered Symphony in just nine months. Mitch Kapor made good on his promise by funding Iris Associates with $1.3 million. Ray, Tim Halvorsen, and Len Kawell began building what would be named Lotus Notes, a system for collaboration using networked personal computers.
When released in 1989, Notes became the defining “groupware” product used within large enterprises worldwide. Years before the web explosion, business users were introduced to core functions of PLATO’s community: Email, discussion groups, calendars, chat, and to-do lists. When IBM absorbed Lotus in a hostile takeover, Notes was the prize. IBM pushed its users to 125 million worldwide.
In 1997 Ray left IBM to bring Notes-like features to the internet with Groove Networks. Decentralization was in vogue at the time, and Groove Networks was fully optimized for peer-to-peer operation, like Napster or modern torrents, using a version of blockchain technology. However, the web began moving back toward centralization. 9/11 offered Groove a key niche—connecting government agencies together. The Iraq war and the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia created a need for decentralized communication.
In 2005 Microsoft bought Groove Networks, which became part of SharePoint. Ray took over as Microsoft’s chief software architect from none other than . . . Bill Gates. Ray pushed to take Microsoft toward online software and services, and championed Office 365 and the effort to build its Azure Cloud Services. But the company was slow to shift away from its huge PC-based Office revenue.
Ray left Microsoft in 2010 and was soon part of the founding team at Safecast, a nonprofit global environmental monitoring effort organized in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.
In 2012 Ray started Talko Inc. to make mobile apps and services for business groupware. The name was an homage to the PLATO system’s “Talkomatic” chat program. Ray sold Talko to Microsoft in December 2015. He then founded Blues Wireless to adapt global cellular infrastructure for the Internet of Things, including “citizen science” efforts like SafeCast.
* Note: Transcripts represent what was said in the interview. However, to enhance meaning or add clarification, interviewees have the opportunity to modify this text afterward. This may result in discrepancies between the transcript and the video. Please refer to the transcript for further information – http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102792128
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Catalog Number: 102792129
Lot Number: X9392.2021